Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

5 February 2011

Ed Miliband: England is a promise politicians haven’t even made let alone broken

I was struck by the following phrase in the BBC’s account of Ed Miliband’s speech in Gateshead yesterday on the so-called ‘Promise of Britain’: “He argued that policies such as nearly trebling the cap on student tuition fees in England and scrapping the educational maintenance allowance would ‘take away the ladders’ for young people and have a profound impact on the country’s future.”

Could it really be, I wondered, that English Ed had actually referred to an England-only government policy as taking effect “in England”? I felt I had to check against delivery, as they say, so I had a look at the transcript of Ed’s speech on the Labour Party website. Sadly, I couldn’t find a single use of the word ‘England’, but I did see the following phrase: “they are cutting away the ladders, destroying the chances of children and young people, and undermine [sic] Britain’s future in a profound way”.

Oh well, I suppose in a speech on the Promise of Britain – distinct echoes of last year’s commemorations of the Battle of Britain with Miliband’s reminiscences on his parents’ flight from war-torn Belgium – it would be too much to expect England to get a mention. Instead, ‘Britain’ featured 18 times, and ‘this country’ or ‘our country’ appeared nine times.

Except, of course, that most of the coalition government’s measures that are supposedly cutting away the ladders of opportunity for young British people actually affect only young people living in England: the hike in tuition fees (originally introduced for England only by New Labour, of course); the Education Maintenance Allowance (being scrapped in England only but retained in Scotland and Wales); Sure Start; the alleged scrapping of a guaranteed apprenticeship place for 17- and 18-year-olds in the current Education Bill (not 100% sure that doesn’t also apply to Wales, but it definitely doesn’t apply in Scotland); etc.

Does it actually matter, on one level, if the Labour leader doesn’t make clear that the UK-government measures he’s criticising affect only one part of Britain – England – not the whole of it? Possibly not, in the sense that the cuts will affect English youngsters in the same way whether you call them English or British cuts. Plus Miliband is making a broader point about declining economic and educational opportunity for all young people in Britain as it is affected by factors common to all the UK’s nations, such as reduced social mobility, growing income inequality, increasingly stretched family budgets, lack of job opportunities and impossibly high house prices.

But it does matter that Ed does not refer to England if English young people are being sold a ‘Promise of Britain’ that New Labour itself broke: the promise of equal and fair support from the state and public services to all British youngsters as they start out in life. The Labour Party broke this promise in its devolution settlement coupled with an unfair funding mechanism that ensures that Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish young people obtain more state support and subsidies than their English counterparts.

It’s disappointing, but not surprising, that Ed Miliband and / or his speech writers perpetuated the taboo on pronouncing the ‘E’ word in this speech, especially given the recent attempts by some in his party to develop a distinct message and policy agenda for England. Is Miliband’s speech a sign that Labour is in fact going to carry on down the Brownite path of eulogising ‘Britain’ and deceitfully framing all its policies as applying uniformly to Britain, even when they relate to England alone?

How can anyone believe in Miliband’s ‘Promise of Britain’ when it was not only New Labour that broke it in the first place, but when this promise is dishonest in its very concept: the idea of a ‘Britain Fair For All’ (as Labour’s 2010 election manifesto, written by Ed Miliband put it) that Labour has had neither the will nor the means to actually bring about?

Labour should stop going on about a ‘Promise of Britain’ it cannot keep, and should start making realistic and honest commitments to the next generation in England. At least, if Labour returned to government, it would actually have the power to keep those promises. But would it have the will?

6 November 2008

Barack Obama: America’s Tony Blair

Is Barack Obama a US version of Tony Blair? This is not a comparison that’s being made very much. After all, Tony Blair is yesterday’s man and George Bush’s big pal to boot. Progressives feel they were let down by Tony Blair; and they’re not about to compare that traitor with the man who’s now reignited their hope. But therein, of course, lies the validity of the analogy.

Think of the parallels: Obama is about the same age as Tony Blair when he came to power. Both men promised to bring fundamental change not only to the way their country was governed but to its whole ethos: a new liberal individualism, and a refocusing of market economics towards the promotion of opportunity and a more even distribution of the social benefits of prosperity. Obama also has the Blair charm factor, with a particularly strong appeal to women voters. And Obama has himself been handed a huge opportunity to push through his agenda, as the first-past-the-post electoral system has presented him with a majority in Congress that is out of proportion to the level of support he actually obtained in the country.

And, perhaps most fundamentally of all, he represents the prospect of a secularisation of America – challenging some of the most innately conservative features of American society, politics and values that have a Christian foundation: the responsibility of the individual to better himself and to look after his own, rather than relying on the state; the importance of the voluntary sector as a means to foster community and provide for those in need; the stress on traditional family values, heterosexual marriage and Christian faith. Against these fundamental building blocks of America, Obama looks set to implement a social-democratic political programme and a liberal moral agenda: the use of the tax system to redistribute wealth; a greater role for state welfare and social services, perhaps even a US version of the National Health Service; the possibility that young people may be obliged to do some form of state-sponsored community service, competing with voluntarism and suggesting echoes of Gordon Brown’s idea of needing to earn one’s rights through the due exercise of one’s social responsibilities; the promotion of the ethos of equality of opportunity; and a secular-liberal affirmation of the right of all persons – of whatever gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity or creed – to live out their lives in the manner of their choosing, in a way that implies a moral equivalence of all such free individual choices, as opposed to a fundamentally Christian basis for society and ethics.

As part of this liberal-individualistic agenda, there is an aggressive assertion of women’s ‘right to choose’ over above the unborn human’s right to live. As others have shown, Obama is militantly pro-abortion, even to the extent that he may try to introduce an amendment to the US constitution that would make it a right for women to terminate their pregnancies all the way up to nine months for any reason, possibly including merely financial circumstances. He also advocates not only stem-cell research using live human embryos but the deliberate mass creation of embryos solely for the purpose of such research. In this, too, there is a parallel between Obama and New Labour which, despite the ostensibly Christian credentials of its leaders Blair and Brown, has maintained the UK’s comparatively late time limit for abortions (28 weeks) and high rate of terminations (200,000 a year), and has driven through legislation permitting stem-cell research and the creation of hybrid animal-human embryos – all in the name of social and scientific progress.

Another disquieting parallel between Obama and Blair is suggested by their brand of political Christianity. Like Blair, Obama appears to be imbued by a sense of his ‘God-given’ mission to bring change. To be fair to him, it would be hard for anyone with a Christian faith not to believe that God had called and chosen him for the task in some special way given his humble origins and seemingly miraculous meteoric rise to power. But it’s in the potential for megalomania and messianism that this combination of personal faith and massive temporal power presents concerns – particularly, the way in which Obama’s sense of mission to bring change, democracy and secular-liberal freedoms to the world may express itself in military terms.

Obama is no pacifist; and, indeed, he has gone on record as wanting to carry out some form of Iraq-style US military surge in Afghanistan – thereby echoing Tony Blair’s and Gordon Brown’s staunch support for this exercise in Western-liberal supremacism and military folly. The West cannot and will not win – at least, not by military means – in Afghanistan: no army has ever succeeded in subduing that land by military might, not in thousands of years of empires that have met their match in Afghanistan’s barren mountainous hinterlands; not even the mighty Soviet Red Army. And yet Obama would carry on with this fruitless destruction of human life and take the fight on into Pakistan, with the potential of plunging that nuclear power into its own version of Iraq’s internecine chaos. But the lives of Taliban insurgents, Pakistani Islamic fanatics and Afghan civilians are expendable, it seems, in the cause of Western liberal values that Obama believes will somehow be advanced by their demise, as by the deaths of many more US and British servicemen and -women.

I don’t believe, as some appear to do, that Obama is the Antichrist. But I do believe that the combination of his sense of divine calling and commitment to secular liberalism makes him a potential enemy not just of America’s Christian traditions and values but of the sanctity of the human person, of Christian faith and institutions, and of life itself.

By their works shall ye know them. Let us hope that Obama will not be judged by the many thousands or millions of extra lives that may be needlessly lost in the operating theatre, research labs and battle fields. And let us hope that Obama genuinely will bring unity to America and not greater division, as Blair brought to Britain.

And God bless America.

26 May 2008

English Nationalism and Progressive Politics

For me, ‘progressive’ is something of a dirty word. I associate it with the arrogance of the left – particularly, in the British context, of the Labour Party – and of some secular liberals, who seem to divide the world into the rational, modern, ‘progressive’ sheep to the left, and the ideologically reactionary and psychologically ‘regressive’, (religious-)conservative ‘goats’ to the right. Traditionally, however, on Judgement Day – or, as we might put it, ‘in the final analysis’ – it’s the goats on the left that are damned.

New Labour is now facing up to its own impending Judgement Day, at the next general election. Of course, it’s already had to endure three minor tribunals (the recent local elections, the London mayoral vote, and Crewe and Nantwich) where the electorate has damned it for its ineptitude, its arrogance and its lack of a vision for ‘the country’. And, we may ask, which country?

Of course, it’s predominantly the English electorate that has delivered the recent swings towards the Conservatives; not the Welsh (also polled in the local elections) and certainly not the Scots, where the Tories remain as weak a political force as ever. Is there a connection between this growing rejection of New Labour by the English and the fact that, in the PM’s recent statement concerning the government bills to be brought to parliament in the autumn term, the most systematic parts of the Governance of Britain agenda – the Bill of Rights and Responsibilities, the Statement of British Values, and a possible British Constitution – were quietly put on hold?

One wonders what New Labour’s focus groups and private opinion polls have been revealing about the English public’s attitude to the Britishness crusade. Doubtless, people have been saying, ‘stop hammering on about what it means to be British and get on with the real job, particularly sorting out the problems with the economy’. A very pragmatic response, indeed, to the rather un-English attempts to systematise Britishness and even to establish a new integral Nation of Britain.

But the growing electoral favour enjoyed by David Cameron’s Conservatives (or shall we just call them the New Tories?) does not equate to a groundswell of support for English nationalism, as such; nor are the Conservatives the obvious choice for the majority of English people who favour some form of England-specific governance, ranging from an English Grand Committee to full independence. The Conservative Party is of course opposed to an English parliament and will probably abandon its as yet equivocal support for some variant of the EGC idea if it feels it can win a large outright majority. As the argument goes, since such a majority would be based entirely on the choices of voters in England – as distorted by the first-past-the-post electoral system – there would be no point in having a separate EGC for England-only bills, as the Tory majority in the EGC would simply be replicating that in the UK parliament as a whole. But would the Tory government’s legislative and policy programme constitute a new – let alone progressive – agenda for England?

Everyone wants to be progressive these days, even the New Tories. Indeed, in a recent article in The Independent, David Cameron affirmed that “it is the Conservative Party that is the champion of progressive ideals in Britain today”. The three main examples of Conservative progressivism Cameron provided were the commitment to eliminate poverty in Britain, environmental sustainability, and equality of opportunity / social mobility, which was described as “the most fundamental progressive ideal of all”. The mechanisms that the Tories would apply to realise these objectives were essentially those of the market, along with targeted increases in support to social services and charities working with the most vulnerable. These were contrasted to the “old-fashioned mechanisms of top-down state control” supposedly favoured by New Labour. In other words, David Cameron was unmistakably positioning the Tories as the party that would actually deliver on the New Labour agenda of market-driven economic and social reform, in contrast to GB [Gordon Brown], who had ‘conservatively’ resorted to his Old Labour statist instincts.

So in fact, the ‘new progressive’ politics of David Cameron’s Conservatives are just New Labour Mark II: he’s playing out the same old Conservative political narrative as Tony Blair himself, in which it is now the Tories, not New Labour, who have the innovative, flexible and market-orientated solutions to lift people out of poverty, to motivate individuals to improve their lives, to promote social cohesion, and to create wealth in an environmentally sustainable way. This is the same paradigm as New Labour: social-market economics or, in other words, Thatcherite economics as the instrument for achieving progressive social objectives, primarily because the market serves as the model for society itself. The more society is transformed into an efficiently functioning market, so the thinking goes, the more the needs of society will be addressed by the market and people’s lives will be improved by their enhanced participation in the market, i.e. through becoming ever more effective agents in the world of buying and selling, as employees and consumers.

David Cameron’s formula injects a modest degree of One Nation Conservatism back into the mix, in terms of stressing the importance of government concern for, and effective measures to support, the most vulnerable in society. But the message is essentially the same: greater social justice and improved economic efficiency are interdependent objectives, and addressing social problems is about enabling everyone to become economically productive individuals and social units – able both to create and capitalise on opportunity, and to lift up their own lives, without the economic inefficiency and social dependency of a bloated public sector. So Cameron talks of “paying couples to live together rather than apart” (economic incentive to engineer social result – what about the only recent Tory re-emphasis on marriage, which now appears to have been dropped?); “plans for radical welfare reform to help people move from long-term poverty to long-term employment” (difference from New Labour or Thatcherism? Cutting / re-structuring benefits to give people more incentive to work and so alleviate poverty); the green revolution driven by “markets and incentives for dynamic industrial change, rather than centre-left approaches such as bureaucracy and regulation”; and “radical school reform, bringing the best education to the poorest children by opening up the state system to new providers” (avowedly Blairite opening up of the education system to market mechanisms); etc.

So, David Cameron’s New Toryism in fact comprises a very tired set of arguably failed political mantras, and ultimately rests on an idea that (Britain’s) social problems can be addressed and remedied, in the first instance, through market mechanisms designed to stimulate economic growth. In this, it is not just the inheritor of New Labour, and by extension Thatcherism, but also in fact of Old Labour, which was economic and materialist in its thinking about social engineering, albeit that the formula was fundamentally different. Does this point to what is ultimately meant by progressive politics: a politics of how to improve society, where the model for that improvement is provided primarily by ideas of economic, technological and material ‘progress’? In this sense, the Tories are indeed true progressives: they worship the same Idols of wealth, power and human technology, and marvel at the social depredations caused by the greed, selfishness and lust for more that these unleash.

And another way in which the New Tories represent very much the same old politics is in their Britain-centric thinking. All the policy ideas are stated as relating to ‘Britain’, not England, even though those relating to education, the environment, and work with local-community organisations of every type, aimed at tackling distinctive local socio-economic problems, would mostly involve the government in its England-only aspects – policy in these areas for Scotland and Wales having been made the responsibility of the devolved administrations in those countries. Is it really possible, in the post-devolution world, to advocate a progressive politics for the whole of Britain when so many of the traditional levers for delivering that social agenda (education, health, housing, transport, communities and local government) have been devolved? The main political parties sidestep this problem by continuing to pretend that their remit in these areas is UK-wide, which they do by continually referring to ‘Britain’ and ‘this country’, and suppressing all mention of ‘England’ even when – or particularly when – they’re referring to England alone.

So to the intellectual poverty of the parties’ socio-economic prescriptions one has to add the political dishonesty of denying that the progressive agenda for Britain – insofar as it is thought of as being delivered by Westminster – is mainly a progressive agenda for England; the better to justify the participation of Scottish and Welsh Labour voters and MPs in deciding on laws and policies for England they are not directly affected by; or, under Cameron, to disguise the fact that a Tory government will have no mandate for Scotland or Wales – or even, really, for England, where it is unlikely to obtain an actual majority of the popular vote.

Can a government really be said to care for the people if it cannot even acknowledge them by name and affirm them for what they are: the people of England and not of Britain as a whole? And that means acknowledging English life and society as it really is: in many respects, profoundly broken and damaged; but also having many enduring, positive characteristics that can provide the basis for restoring civic pride and re-building shattered communities. Reaffirming English culture and identity as good and valuable in themselves, and rallying people around the idea that there is a whole ‘new’ nation – that of England – to be built, could provide a massive stimulus to re-engaging people in participative democracy at both local and national level, so long as voters’ actual intentions are reflected in election results and there is real accountability of politicians to the people at every level at which power is exercised. In short, we need political reform, giving the chance for the English people to vote on alternative ways forward for ‘their’ nation (England), before we can get any real momentum behind a new progressive agenda – as one could then begin to address the questions of who the progress is for, and who defines what constitutes progressive change in England.

How might this new English progressive agenda shape up? This is obviously a huge question. But it seems to me that the beginning of an answer to it could be found by definitively ‘breaking the mould’ – to coin a phrase – of the old assumptions and tribal loyalties associated with the ‘left’, ‘right’ and ‘centre’, while at the same time re-focusing and combining the best elements in the traditions of the left and of the middle of English-British politics towards addressing England’s real social problems. This involves making the social objectives paramount, and reforming the economy and politics in order to achieve those objectives most effectively: the objectives being to give individuals and communities more of a sense that they have a real stake in shaping their future, and can create sustainable economic activities and social infrastructure; in part because the purpose of business itself is redefined as being much more to do with creating and sustaining valued communities rather than providing increasingly insecure, and merely economic, value for isolated individuals (whether employees or shareholders) and for ‘the country’.

But such a programme is unrealistic without a significant transformation in the attitudes and expectations of people for their lives in general – moving away from placing value on material, technological and individual-economic progress for their own sake, and towards seeing progress in different terms: those of quality of life, not quantity of assets; of real, supportive and safe communities; sustainable production and consumption, not material excess; and technology harnessed towards the creation of an environmentally more sustainable way of life that needn’t discard all the positive benefits of our technological lifestyle in terms of comfort, health and a more enjoyable life. A better England, reflecting the priorities and addressing the needs of the people of England; and not a mad, economic growth-obsessed, and unsustainably globalising Britain whose economic success under New Labour – as we now realise – was built on the unsteady foundation of insane property prices and overactive global credit markets. Unrealistic? Well, maybe this sort of adjustment of our expectations will be forced upon us anyway through the need to mitigate and adapt to climate change. Better to plan ahead for, and make the most of, the wide-ranging changes that will have to happen in any case; and better that those who are doing this planning are people who care about England and her people, and are answerable to them.

The tables below illustrate my take on how the new progressive politics could re-state the old polarities of right and left. The first table shows how New Labour colonised not just the traditional centre of British politics but also classical or Thatcherite Conservative policies in the areas of society, the economy and international affairs; so much so that it has been impossible for the Tories to articulate any sort of credible position in these areas. The colour coding indicates which party has occupied the traditional left, centre and right positions in a number of areas during the majority of the New Labour period in power:

Angle Left Centre Right
Society Egalitarian, collectivist; working class: socialist Equality of opportunity, redistributive; middle class, aspirational: social democratic Hierarchical, individualist; upper(-middle) class, privilege: Tory
Economy Public ownership, command-based (‘needs-orientated’): socialist Regulated free markets, ‘social model’: social democratic Private ownership, demand-driven (market-orientated): ‘economic liberalism’, Thatcherism
Politics Statist, centralist, popular-unionist, ‘sovereignty of the people’, republican: socialist / social democratic; Old Labour Regionalist, localist, community-focused; small-scale, participative democracy: Liberal Anti-state, ‘centrifugal’, unionist-nationalist, ‘sovereignty of the individual’, monarchist: Tory
Philosophy, ideology Secular, rationalist, materialist, progressive, liberal; Western Enlightenment tradition: socialist / social democratic; Old Labour Pluralist, tolerant, consensus; libertarian, humanitarian, human rights-focused; Western Enlightenment tradition: Liberal Traditionalist, morally / socially conservative; (Anglican) establishment Christianity: Tory
International outlook Internationalist, solidarity / fraternity; ‘inclusive mono-culturalism’: socialist / social democratic; Old Labour A-national, universal; ‘exclusive multi-culturalism’: liberal Globalist, capitalist; imperialist mono-culturalism: Tory

David Cameron is clearly trying to re-occupy the centre ground for the Conservatives, particularly in the areas of society and politics as outlined in the above table. However, at the same time, this involves reaffirming Tory market economics – traditionally, a right-wing position – which was also colonised by New Labour. By emphasising the ‘soft’ social dimension of Tory policies (addressing the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable, creating greater opportunity and social mobility, environmental sustainability), Cameron is distracting attention from the fact that the basic mechanism he has in mind for achieving these goals is good old-fashioned market economics: Blair II (or Thatcher III, if Blair is seen as Thatcher II).

If this form of economy-centric approach to social re-engineering is rejected as a progressive position in favour of making economic activity the servant of social objectives – as opposed to ransoming society to a growth-obsessed economy – then one can begin to see the parameters of a new progressive politics that could affirm and redefine the goals of the best of the traditional left and centre, while repudiating the more traditionally right-wing aspects of Conservatism and New Labour, such as dogmatic market economics, unchecked globalisation, and ignoring the needs and priorities of the English working and middle classes. The table below illustrates how this new progressive alignment might shape up:

Angle Progressive Left Progressive Centre Old Tory
Society Working class; social justice Middle class, Middle England; opportunity, fairness, social responsibility Upper(-middle) class and the very wealthy; ‘selfish’ individualism and corporate greed; privilege
Economy Economic pragmatism: best ownership structures to ensure sustainable delivery of social objectives; ‘social enterprise’ culture: successful businesses, serving social needs; some services back to public ownership? Economic diversity: multiplicity of public-private cross-overs; local / social enterprises meeting community needs; small business Private enterprise, exclusively demand-driven (market-orientated); big business; global capital
Politics Popular nationalism: celebration and promotion of English culture, people, traditions, history; sovereignty of the English people; pan-British federalism / co-operation; importance of cohesive but also ethnically / culturally / internationally inclusive, open English nation (or nation state) Localism-regionalism: strong, constitutionally safeguarded commitment to powerful representative local-regional democracy; citizens’ rights Unitary unionism / British nationalism; anti-state, anti-English-nationalist tendencies (individualist, global-capitalist)
Philosophy, ideology Secular, rationalist, materialist, progressive, liberal; Western Enlightenment tradition Pluralist, tolerant, consensus; libertarian, humanitarian, human rights-focused; Western Enlightenment tradition; Christian / respect for all faiths Increasingly anachronistic, unrealistic, mono-cultural traditionalism / Christian-social-moral conservatism
International outlook Internationalist, solidarity / fraternity; new ‘English multi-culturalism’; co-operation and participation in international bodies where in the national English interest Focus on global sustainable development, alleviating world poverty / disease, world environment challenges, justice / human rights: ‘one-world’ culture Globalist, capitalist; imperialist; Western-centric mono-culturalism

The Tories’ present appeal is too dependent on developing a narrative that they will safeguard economic prosperity to develop a radical progressive agenda that could easily occupy even the centre ground of progressive politics, as outlined in the above table. And they are certainly too wedded to the unionist ideal to articulate anything approximating to popular English nationalism, which does, on the other hand, have considerable appeal among the working- and middle-class sections of the population that represent the natural constituency for the left and centre of English politics.

English people will be re-engaged by politics when they can see ambitious but also grounded, realistic policies for addressing the terrible social problems that exist in England, which are the legacy of the failures of both the welfare state and Thatcherite market economics. This would indeed be a new progressive agenda, but it would have to do two things: make flourishing economic activity and enterprise, critical though they are, the servant of social needs and communities, and not the other way round; and, to some extent, put England and the English first – while by no means forgetting our international partnerships and responsibilities, and above all those to the poor and oppressed throughout the world. Which means two long-term habits of progressive thinking will need to be abandoned: making economic growth and success, measured in purely GDP terms, the motor and definition of social progress; and making Britain the focus of all policy, when that Britain no longer exists and may well disappear altogether under a Cameron government that will be intensely unpopular in Scotland.

Then maybe the Last Judgement on the progressives will not be as harsh as might be feared, and the terrible dichotomies of left and right will fade away – but only if self-professed progressives learn to put real people and nations before the global gods of power and money.

3 March 2008

The Britain Of Brown’s Dreams: Meritocracy Not Democracy

“Let us go out with confidence to meet the world to come, let us embrace this new age of ambition, and let us build the Britain of our dreams”.

How many of GB’s [Gordon Brown’s] fellow-British citizens share his dreams for Britain? How many of them have any sort of dreams for Britain as such? I can’t think of anyone I know – and, as an English nationalist, I’m in a minority of one among my circle of friends – who goes around saying, ‘I wish that in Britain, there was more equality of access to educational opportunity’, or ‘if only in Britain we had a culture and politics that really encouraged creativity and ambition’. It’s not only that many people, if they have any dreams at all for their country, would refer to these as dreams for England, Scotland, Wales or Ireland; and don’t talk about Britain this and Britain that (unlike Mr Brown: 22 references to ‘Britain’ / ‘British’ in a speech of 3,065 words – actually, a comparatively low proportion for him). But it’s that people’s ‘dreams’ are more personal: related above all to what they would like to achieve for themselves and their families, and – as part of that – what they would like for the localities, communities, towns and cities, and ultimately the country and world in which they live. The importance within all of this that people ascribe to their ‘nation’ derives from so many ties of shared experience, identity, history and priorities, extending from the individual level where dreams take shape to those around us who have similar dreams, and our realisation that the fulfilment of those dreams, or indeed the wellbeing of the communities we cherish, is based on mutual dependency, collaboration and support.

GB would probably try to make out that his ‘dream for Britain’, presented at Labour’s spring conference on Saturday, does try to espouse this individual level of aspiration and ambition. Indeed, he sets out his whole vision as being based on releasing the potential of the individual:

“We are the first generation to be able to say that there need be no limit on how far your talent can take you, no cap on what you can do with your potential and no ceiling on how many of us can fulfill our dreams”.

Creating the ‘Britain of our dreams’ is about creating a Britain in which everyone can fulfil their dreams. Indeed, the essence of Brown’s vision for Britain is a meritocracy where upward social mobility is determined by individual talent, which the structures of British society enable to be fully released:

“The new way, in this new age of rising ambition, is to provide a platform, from which each individual can rise.  And this, is a new common purpose that our generation can forge together, a new meritocracy, a new wave of upward social mobility, that instead of unlocking just some of the talent of some of the people, must in this generation unlock all of the talents, of all of the people”.

While this meritocracy is a benefit that society confers on people (advancement and recognition based on the use of one’s talents that society has helped you to develop), it is also an imperative: meritocracy that must unlock all of the talents of all of the people. This is where the interface between GB’s Christian family background and his social doctrine is most evident. In Christian teaching, the fulfilment of an individual’s talents is a moral duty: the expression of gifts received by the individual from God for the benefit of all. In GB’s vision, this personal duty to develop one’s potential becomes elevated to the central purpose of society as a whole, which also fulfils an economic imperative: enabling Britain to compete and prosper in a global economy that places a premium on talent, creativity and knowledge.

In short, GB’s model of a meritocratic society is a purely economic one, in which the opportunities that society gives the individual through education, healthcare and other forms of social provision are an investment on which it is as much a social as moral responsibility of the individual to generate a return – through work, and the benefits to society and the economy that derive from the active expression of individuals’ talents. This translates to GB’s political programme as follows:

“to forge this common purpose we must create:

– a new economic policy, that is designed to reward talent, creativity and skills
– a new social and welfare policy of rights and responsibilities that equips people to master change, instead of letting change master them
– a programme of new education reforms that for trusts, specialist and academy schools, focus on excellence for all
– a new politics that places power and the opportunity to change things in the hands of people themselves
– and new personalised public services, tailored to meet our needs and choices so that we can live the lives we all choose, with a pace of reform stepped up not slowed down”.

To unpack this somewhat, the reference to ‘a new social and welfare policy of rights and responsibilities’ means that welfare is linked to this idea of a social-moral obligation to work and thereby express one’s talents. As GB says later in the speech, “we will insist that all who can work, must work, in fairness to all of us who do. Between now and 2010, we will give people new hope by helping another 100,000 people move from welfare to work”. So is there now to be a general obligation for British citizens to work, for the good of society and the economy; even those citizens not seeking or needing welfare benefits? And we all know what ‘helping people to move from welfare to work’ involves in practice: forcing many sick and disabled people, and their carers, into often inappropriate or unrewarding employment; or insisting that new mothers should work and then be obliged to pay for childcare, often with no economic advantage to themselves and the loss of the ability to be full-time mothers during their children’s pre-school years.

Obviously, there are also cases of people who could easily work choosing not to do so and claiming benefits, and who could rediscover a purpose in life and gain renewed self-esteem from moving into employment. But the point is, in Brown’s vision, that a person’s value is defined primarily in terms of their economic value: their ability to contribute to society, and to enhance their own lives, through economic activity and development. As if there were little or no value in the lives of those (children or the sick) who are dependent on the care of others who, in turn, choose to dedicate themselves to those dependants and thereby limit their engagement in society viewed as a market economy.

Instead, in Brown’s vision, the onus to care for children and the sick is shifted away from those who love them to society, which invests in educational and healthcare services designed to maximise the ability of people to participate fully in the market economy and capitalise on the social-market opportunity that those services both represent in themselves (here and now) and in turn enable for the future. For instance, there are Brown’s education reforms that are about fostering an array of choices that represent opportunity for both the providers and ‘customers’, whose future opportunities will be shaped by the excellence of the education services they receive: “a programme of new education reforms that for trusts, specialist and academy schools, focus on excellence for all”. (So much for the old ideal of a rounded liberal education that included both academic and non-academic subjects, many of which were not simply focused on economically orientated performance and excellence at every turn.)

Or healthcare provision prioritising economically active individuals’ needs to design their personal healthcare plans around their busy lives (e.g. through multi-GP polyclinics where you could end up seeing any one of 20 or more doctors, depending on who happened to be on duty at the time) – rather than services focused on the needs of long-term sick and disabled people who typically benefit most from the more cost-intensive, continuous one-to-one relationship with a single GP: “new personalised public services, tailored to meet our needs and choices so that we can live the lives we all choose”. Lives we choose, or lives in which the only time we can squeeze in our medical appointments is the supposedly free time of the weekend or evenings – so pressured are the demands of economically competitive living?

And don’t be fooled by the pledge of “a new politics that places power and the opportunity to change things in the hands of people themselves”. This is not political power or people power, and the opportunity to throw out an unpopular and unrepresentative government, or even change the state itself to one that more closely reflects people’s national identities and priorities. No, this is economic opportunity only: the power of individuals to change their lives through the exercise of their talents; the power of the meritocracy, not democracy:

“That’s what Labour values in action look like: using the opportunity of power, to unleash the power of opportunity”.

“policies that year on year will meet the challenges of global change by ensuring opportunity and security not just for some, but for all who play by the rules. This is what I mean by fairness to hard-working families”.

So long as you ‘play by the rules’ of Brown’s Britain and fulfil your duty to society by working hard, then you’ll have economic opportunity and the protection of the state – but not if you want to opt out of the collective purpose to create a Britain of dreams, and seek freedom from the intrusive interference and demands of the British state.

Or if you wish to reject New Labour’s drive to build its New British Jerusalem in England’s once green and pleasant land. That is because most of these long-term policies for Britain are of course in fact solely for England (those in education, health and housing, for instance) and rest on the assumption that Labour will continue relentlessly to exercise power over England through the UK government for years and years to come: phrases such as “by 2010”, “year on year”, “over the next decade” and even “over the next 25 years” recur again and again throughout the speech.

So it looks as though, in England, we could be stuck with Brown’s Britain of dreams (or, as the Labour spring conference website has it, “New Labour your Britain”) for years, even decades, to come – whether we’ve voted for it or not; for we the English certainly haven’t voted for it, for England, since at least 1997, because there is no such thing as English votes by English people for English laws. So we can look forward to ever more competitive markets in education and health, giving us the ‘choice’ of public services to fit around our busy individualised, compartmentalised lives that we have ‘chosen’, and matching our aspirations for our children defined purely in terms of economic success and social advancement – as opposed to their happiness and contribution to enriching the quality of life of those around them. And we can look forward to three million new homes to cater to Britain’s massive immigration-fuelled population growth, concentrated almost exclusively in England, providing labour for Britain’s economic powerhouse – cluttering up our already overcrowded land, and replacing green field with unwanted eco-towns foisted upon disempowered, objecting local communities; the rest no doubt increasingly served by new nuclear power stations, also sited in England.

Let’s build Brown’s Britain of dreams, then: Britain’s economic meritocracy. In the absence of English democracy, it seems that is the only ‘choice’ that awaits us – even if it may in fact herald the England of our nightmares.

20 February 2008

What are ‘English values’?

In this blog, I’ve set out to maintain a continuous critique of so-called ‘British values’: one of the central underpinnings of the UK government’s attempts to not only preserve the Union but also redefine and reorientate it for the 21st century in the face of the cultural and economic changes and uncertainties we face both nationally and internationally.

There are many problems with this enterprise, not the least of which is that the New Britain that New Labour – and GB [Gordon Brown] in particular – would like to establish relies on the suppression of any aspirations to formal nationhood on the part of the English. As a result of the asymmetrical devolution settlement during the first term of the Blair government, we’ve witnessed a sort of ‘paradigm reversal’. Previously, Britain (technically, the UK) was a unitary state in which all the national-level decisions for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were taken by the Westminster government. And also decisions for England, of course. But England stood in a special relationship to Britain: Britain was to all intents and purposes the extension of England and the proxy-English state; British rule in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland effectively meant English control over their affairs. English people identified with Britain, meaning that the English and British national identities were effectively interchangeable from the English perspective.

Devolution has brought the beginning of the end of this sense that England and Britain are one: instead of England ruling Britain (i.e. ruling Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland), we now have in many ways a rump British state in which the competency of the government in many critical policy areas is limited largely to England. This is now Britain ruling England; but Britain defined as the central UK government and state rather than as the other nations of Britain that were effectively ruled by England through the British state, and which English people assimilated into their own identity through the interchangeability of ‘English’ and ‘British’. (See, for instance, the unthinking habit English people used to have of referring to Scotland and Wales as if they were part of England.)

We’ve had, in other words, a seismic split in the English-British identity. In the imagination and sentiments of ordinary people, ‘Britain’ (in the sense of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) has separated out from England: as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland reassert their own national pride and an identity separate from that of England-Britain, English people in their turn have withdrawn the investment of their national pride in Britain and begun a process of redefining and reaffirming their own national identity as English in the first instance, rather than British. Meanwhile, the British state has separated itself in its thinking and attitudes from any ideas of (itself as representing) English nationhood along the lines of the emerging Scottish, Welsh and (Northern) Irish nations. It pretends that the old unitary Britain still exists, which in formal, legal terms it still does: power has only been devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and could in theory be taken back at any time. And, of course, many areas of government have not been devolved, especially those that have an impact on the whole of the UK territory and population, such as international relations, energy policy and security.

This means that the government represents the continuation of the old British part of the English identity: split off from – no longer the state vehicle and political expression of – England. The government has not been able to embrace and espouse the popular movement for reaffirming Englishness and the nation of England, distinct from the British state. It could have done, perhaps; but this would have taken a visionary leader who was prepared to adopt a more populist and, perhaps, more working-class stance at a time when New Labour was positioning itself as a bastion of liberal-Middle Class conservatism, and as the party of the establishment that is built on the support of that strata of the population and reflects its values. You could say, ironically, that New Labour’s appeal was to the Old England (New Britain, Old England): the bit of England that identified more strongly with the old unitary British state and its principles. Labour, whose whole philosophy has always placed such a huge emphasis on using the lever of its power bases in working-class England, Scotland and Wales to force through its agenda of social change throughout the unitary state – including in conservative England who largely had to bankroll its programme – could not so easily now relinquish the unbridled power over the whole of the UK that Blair’s massive, disproportionate majorities had given it, based as they were on finally winning support from Middle England. Hence the shift in Labour’s whole sense of its mission from being the party of working-class socialist internationalism to the party of conservative English-British unionism: the party that seeks to conserve the old unitary British state and identity even when the people were separating away from it, and seeing themselves more as English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish.

To summarise so far: pre-devolution, we had a unitary Britain dominated by England, in which the English and British identities were merged; post-devolution, we have a separating out of the identities of England and the ‘two Britains’ from which it had previously been indissociable: Britain in the sense of the other countries of the UK, and Britain in the sense of the unitary British state. That state, in the shape of the Labour government, took it upon itself to resurrect the rapidly disappearing unified British identity on which its legitimacy and power depended. Unable to reverse the devolution for which it was responsible, it could not re-establish Britishness by recreating the popular, organic sense of shared identity, history, family relatedness, and social solidarity and community encapsulated in a Britain with which the nations of the UK had all been to some extent happy to identify and belong: the English by seeing the other countries of Britain as an extension of England; and the other countries by seeing Britain as just another name for England, with which they were united in one kingdom. Labour’s only option was to take the formal values of the British state itself as the foundation of a new national-British unity – indeed, of a new Nation of Britain, as I’ve described it elsewhere.

This is nation building that proceeds from the state and from the centre; not, as previously, a state (Britain) that was experienced as an expression of the identities and affections of the people: a national unity that was felt and lived, rather than one that, initially at least, is merely conceptual and ideological. For what are these British values that all the nations of the UK are said to hold in common and around which the government hopes they will (re-)unite? They are principles of civic society that, historically, ‘Britain’ (in reality, often England before it merged into Britain) is said, if not to have originated, at least to have given their modern political expression in parliamentary democracy. As such, they are a combination of universal secular-humanist principles that no democrat could repudiate AND of characteristics and qualities valued by the English and said to be typical of the English. On the universal side: liberty / individual freedom, equality (of opportunity), democracy and the rule of law; on the English side – but blending into the universal concepts and giving them their human and cultural ‘flavour’ – tolerance, fairness / fair play, support for the underdog and compassion for the disadvantaged, and a healthy suspicion and contempt towards excessive power and wealth, particularly when that power is exercised towards the English as private individuals and as a nation.

In this way, the British government hopes to gain endorsement for its newly formulated set of British values from the English people because they are essentially English values: they’re the values of the British state that once was the effective English state and the expression of English national pride; and they’re amplified sentimentally by an appeal to cultural qualities that are undeniably associated with the English. The difference is that whereas, pre-devolution, those values were invested in a Britain (state and extension of England to the rest of Britain) with which the English identified, now the English have increasingly separated their national identity from Britain. This means that all the language of Britishness becomes just so much empty concepts and abstract ideas divorced from the English and no longer articulating a meaningful sense of nationhood for them, or inspiring a sense of purpose and confidence in an uncertain world and future. The discourse of Britishness, in other words, is a state language and ideology. Through it, the British state and government both represent what they think of as Britain and British (cf. the attempt to arrive at an official Statement of British Values), and see themselves as the representative – the democratic embodiment and expression – of Britain. Indeed, the state has become Britain, and Britain has become merely a state; whereas once, in an emotional and symbolic sense at least, it was a nation – the expression of the English nation.

In other words, before devolution, the unitary UK was build on a unity and common identity between England and Britain (state and the other countries). That unity has been broken; and the only unity with which it is in the power of the state to attempt to repair it is through a new unified, systematic articulation of a united Nation of Britain: effectively, a re-establishment of Britain through codified, foundational documents such as the Statement of British Values, a British Bill of Rights and, of course, a written constitution. That new inherent, conceptual unity of Britain – Britain present to itself in the articulation of the fundamental principles and values through which it understands itself – can become the means to (re-)establish a true nation (the state seeking the acceptance of, and identification with, its values from the people) if it replaces England: the previous centre, heart and national identity that gave life to the British state. Hence, a real cultural and political programme is afoot that indeed seeks to redefine and replace English history, culture and identity as and with British history, culture and identity: British values. You might say this is purely semantics, as I’ve already stated that the English and British identities have historically been merged. Historically, yes. But the difference now is that reference to the Englishness of Britishness, and to the historical reality that Britain has hitherto been effectively Greater England, is being systematically expunged. I’ve attempted to demonstrate this on numerous occasions, for instance, in my Campaign for Plain England blogs and numerous other posts exploring the censorship of references to England, which manifests a will for England not to exist; indeed, the transforming of it into virtual non-existence through a kind of deliberate double-think-type substitution of Britain or ‘this country’ for ‘England’ when England is what is actually at issue. British values may well be English values; but one is no longer allowed to say this, or indeed, to say ‘England’ at all.

But are English values British values? Meaningless question, really, as it presupposes that it might be possible to come up with a representative set of English values, precisely; in the same way as the British government claims it can set down a representative set of British values: one through which it can represent itself as representing Britain – state and nation (re-)united. Those British values discussed above can indeed be also, and perhaps more properly, described as English values. But English values, or rather Englishness per se, cannot be reduced to such an impoverished collection of abstractions. To find Englishness – the Englishness that has diverged from the path of formal, state, civic Britishness – you need to set your sights at both a more basic and higher level. There’s no essence or quintessence of Englishness, in a strict, philosophical sense; but we who live in England are surrounded by thousands of instances of Englishness – so much a part of the daily fabric of our lives and the cultural air we breathe that it almost appears invisible. I’m not myself now going to fall into the trap of trying to define Englishness in a narrow way. But, rather than being about philosophical and societal values, Englishness has more to do with what we value: the places, people, communities, activities and things that we love and on which we bestow value, and those we don’t; it’s about a way of life, the way we relate to one another with all our flaws, and a place we call home.

So much for the ‘basic’, and yet elusive, level of understanding of what England means to us; what of the higher level I referred to? Well, those universal British (but often historically more English) values I mentioned (liberty, equality, tolerance, respect for the rule of law) are fundamental secular-humanist principles: core concepts of a secular understanding of what you could call the value of humanity itself and the basis for human rights – the essential dignity and integrity of every human being from which flows the imperative that we respect individual free self-determination and the fundamental equality of all persons. Noble and vital principles, indeed, and essential for the defence of our freedoms – but universal and hardly ‘quintessentially British’. And can these absolute concepts and abstractions truly give form and voice to what are the highest, most sacred values we hold dear? Are these not, rather, things like love, kindness, self-sacrifice, justice, peace, friendship, childhood and life itself? Again, nothing quintessentially English or British about these. But the importance these qualities hold for us is precisely because of their sacred and spiritual character, however we qualify or understand those terms.

The English are a spiritual people – as are, if you think in these terms, every other people on earth. But this spirituality is indeed something fundamental to the character of our nation, as indeed it has helped to shape that character over centuries. One possible filter to understand the character of a people is to observe how they respond to the challenge to live up to the demands of loving and caring for one another, and respecting life – put in Christian terms, how they respond to the call of the spirit, and embody and express that spirit in the pattern of their lives. In this sense, there is much to commend and much also to be aggrieved at about modern life in England, where there is so much poverty of the spirit alongside material poverty and human selfishness.

England is a spiritual nation and still, officially, a Christian country, with an established Church and a queen who is both Head of the Church, Queen of England and head of the British state. Does it mean anything, this vestige of an ancient history that does not speak to many English people who do not regard themselves as Christians, or who do but do not consider it necessary for an established church to exist? Well, one would have thought that we English, of all peoples, would be reluctant to discard carelessly a ‘mere’ vestige of our ancient history: our centuries-old English history and tradition, and a reference to the millennial status of the Christian faith as the core value system of our nation, even if it no longer is. In our search to rediscover Englishness, and reaffirm it against a Britishness that would suppress it altogether, we must take cognisance of the fact that the established Church of England is a symbol and continuation of English power and English spirituality at the heart of the British state; a continuation, indeed, of that identification between Englishness and the British state that was broken through devolution.

This is a not frequently commented part of the England and Britain story: Englishness does also have this spiritual dimension, historically and contemporaneously; Britishness is a secular creed, which very likely would disestablish the Church as part of its new national-British constitutional settlement. This would sever both one of the last manifestations of England as the fulcrum of the British state and would remove the moral obligation for British political leaders to be mindful of their responsibilities to their Christian duties and calling, evoked by the Christian headship of the monarch to which governments are still – symbolically, at least – answerable.

This matters for a whole host of reasons, particularly in that it affects the understanding governments have of their fundamental mission and purpose which, beyond seeing to the material prosperity and security of its people, must look to their spiritual wellbeing. This means being seriously affected by the suffering, material and spiritual, of the people as if it were one’s own suffering: making a government that is truly for and of the people, and loves the people; dedicated to giving them hope, confidence and care in their needs and aspirations; and giving all the disenfranchised and alienated parts of the population (including especially the much maligned English youth) a sense that they have some sort of stake in a shared future.

Can a new secular Nation of Britain respond to such a calling? The question is most acute perhaps when it comes to considering how the nation relates to those whose values are not only ‘non-British’, as reductively defined by the state, but are so on religious grounds. I’m referring in particular to the Muslim community, particularly those communities who seek to regulate their lives around a stricter understanding of Islamic law and Koranic teaching. It is hard to see how there can be much place for such faith communities within Britishness and indeed Britain if, indeed, allegiance to official British values becomes the test of citizenship, replacing allegiance to the crown. It’s not that Muslims of this sort take issue with concepts such as personal liberty and equality, in the abstract; but it’s the way those concepts are interpreted and grounded in different religious and cultural traditions that is different. Those secular British values underpin a whole societal and economic model: one in which it is the role of government to release the potential of individuals to participate fully and freely in a secular lifestyle – acquiring material possessions and wealth; creating that wealth through work and career; buying and selling; and trading themselves and their bodies in work, sex and open-ended relationships.

But these values are fundamentally antithetical to the duties and rights expressed in Muslim belief and practice – as, indeed, to the duties and purpose of life as understood by any of the major religious traditions. The language of Britishness cannot reach out beyond itself to understand and embrace radical difference of this kind, and can only reject the pious and dogmatic fidelities of Islam as backward, oppressive and irrational – and as limiting the possibilities for Muslim communities to integrate and participate in the supposed benefits of British life.

Englishness and England, on the other hand, can respond and engage with such diversity in our midst. Englishness, that is, understood as being about appreciation of the little but precious things of daily life; of places, people, food and drink, communities, and caring about the people around you as if they were one’s own – which makes them one’s own. These are things we really do hold in common with Muslims and with those of other faith backgrounds; we all live in England, and can meet in a common and developing – not fixed – Englishness on the shared ground of England.

I say those of ‘other faith backgrounds’: other than our own, that is. We can meet those Muslims, and perhaps only meet those Muslims, on a ground where true dialogue, interchange and possibility of change can arise, if we let the background of our own faith – our English spirit – come to the fore. Not necessarily some arbitrary reconstruction of a, let’s face it, often dysfunctional, destructive and disreputable Christian history – but responding in a new way to that calling of the spirit of love and neighbourliness. A response from which our nation of England may yet be redefined and enjoy its renaissance.

4 October 2007

Does David Cameron Believe In England?

Like his Labour adversary, David Cameron believes in Britain. While not recurring with quite the same hypnotic frequency as in Brown’s oration, the words ‘Britain’ and ‘British’ nonetheless appeared 25 times in Cameron’s 68-minute-long Conservative Party keynote speech yesterday. That compares with three references to ‘England’, one to Wales and none to Scotland.

Unlike Gordon Brown, then, David Cameron seems more reluctant to openly discuss his own Scottish origins, being of Scottish descent on his father’s side. Cameron did in fact refer to his parents: his father a stockbroker and mother a magistrate of long standing in the Berkshire county town of Newbury. He also acknowledged his education at Eton School, similarly in the Royal County of Berkshire. All very English and Home Counties, you might think. Was this reluctance to admit to his Scottish family background, and even to utter the words ‘Scotland’ and ‘Scottish’, linked to a wish to totally ignore the ‘English question’ and / or West Lothian question: the issue of whether the Tories are going to back any formula that will exclude Scottish and Welsh MPs from voting on England-only matters, and ultimately whether a separate English parliament along the lines of those in Scotland and Wales should be established? If this subject is taboo in what could well turn out to be the Conservatives’ launch pad for a general election, this doesn’t bode well for serious discussion on the issue during the election campaign.

Cameron may not have mentioned Scotland but he did pronounce the ‘E’ word three times, as mentioned above. What was the import of these references? For me, they bespeak targeting Northern English swing seats, which is the Tories’ main hope for an electoral break-through. First reference, towards the beginning of the speech: “we are back in the North of England, a force to be reckoned with in every part of our country”. [Er, by ‘our country’, Mr Cameron, do you mean England or Britain as throughout the rest of your speech: Freudian slip there!] Second reference: anecdote illustrating problems of children’s behaviour in schools and teachers being hindered from imposing discipline, based on experience of when “I went and taught in a school for a couple of days in the north of England”. Third mention: the gym set up by Amir Khan (“the best boxer in England”) in Bolton as an illustration of the value to be gained from a national citizens’ service for young people.

So every single mention of England – and there weren’t that many – related to the North. You could infer from this that the Tories aren’t particularly interested in dealing with the specific concerns of their safe heartlands in the rural Midlands and the South; or, indeed, in addressing England as a whole. All they need do is focus on winning a certain number of marginals, especially in the North, and that could be enough to gain them outright power or at least to produce a hung parliament. Does this also imply that they don’t think they have much of a chance of making significant strides in either Scotland or Wales, with the nationalists and Labour slugging it out between them?

If an election is called, as now appears the most likely outcome, it will then effectively be an England-only vote for the Tories. But of course, they can’t openly admit that. Hence the pretence throughout Cameron’s speech that the prospective election will involve issues affecting the whole nation (i.e. Britain) in equal measure; and that the ambitions he laid out for things like education, the NHS, the social services and even tax related to Britain as a whole and not merely England.

To be fair, this pretence is perhaps less disingenuous on the part of the Tories than of Labour: in the unlikely event that the Tories did win an overall majority in the UK as a whole, based on a substantial majority in England, this would at least mean that parliamentary votes on England-only matters involving the participation of Scottish and Welsh MPs would still reflect the majority in England – at least, the majority in terms of number of MPs if not the actual wishes of the English electorate, unless the Tories did pull off the feat of obtaining more than 50% of the English vote. In the context of a run up towards a general election, when the Tories – like Labour – tend to set their sights on the prospect of a disproportionate overall UK majority, the West Lothian question becomes less pressing for the Tories. If they can win a UK majority (and the ‘message’ clearly is that this is their goal), then Malcolm Rifkind’s compromise solution of a Grand Committee of English MPs deciding on England-only matters would probably be sufficient to address the concerns of Conservative Party members and supporters about the West Lothian anomaly – until that majority is lost again, and the injustice and disproportionality of that anomaly can once again not be ignored.

So the Tories are potentially going into an election under the pretence that they are fighting for Britain as a whole; whereas, in reality, they will be fighting for control in and through England, and any real power they have to deliver their social agenda can be exercised only in England. But according to his speech, Mr Cameron doesn’t believe in governments controlling people but: “I think if we give people more power and control over their lives, I think they’ll take the right decisions, they will grow stronger and society will grow stronger too. I don’t believe in an ever larger state doing more and more, I believe in trying to make people do more themselves for their families and with society as well”.

This is all very well; but Mr Cameron certainly doesn’t seem willing to entertain the idea of letting the English people have more control over their lives by giving in to what opinion polls show is majority opinion in favour of an English parliament. When he came to spelling out the political meaning of this greater control people will enjoy over their own lives, Cameron completely side-stepped the whole issue of devolved government and referred only to a referendum on the EU constitutional treaty, to elected city mayors and to scrapping the regional assemblies in favour of county councils. This refusal to even acknowledge the difficulties caused by the current devolution arrangements and the issues around constitutional reform was completely disingenuous: spin in Tory mode.

Cameron might argue that this speech wasn’t the place for dealing with details of policy, although there were plenty of general policy commitments on a host of domestic and international issues. Just as Gordon Brown’s speech last week was his ‘vision thing’, so Cameron’s was a ‘belief thing’: the words ‘belief’ or ‘believe’ occurred 30 times; and the whole oration was framed as an attempt to answer people’s questions about what Mr Cameron believes in. And actually, when it comes down to it, these beliefs come across as remarkably similar to those of Gordon Brown, although there are some subtle but significant differences in the language and tone. Both men claim to believe in empowering the individual to achieve their personal goals and potential; and both consider that individuals also have responsibilities towards the rest of society. However, whereas Gordon Brown describes this in terms of maximising individual opportunity, meritocracy and social responsibility, Cameron talks of individual control and moral responsibility towards others (epitomised in the family) based on personal freedom and what could be termed the ‘sovereignty of the individual’: the view that if people are given real freedom to make their own decisions, these will generally be the right decisions, both morally and in terms of reflecting their needs and the needs of those for whom they are responsible. As Cameron himself summarised: “That’s what I believe. Giving people more power and control over their lives. Making society more responsible and families stronger”.

In short, this is a classic Tory message: a belief that society will become healthier, more cohesive and orderly, more prosperous and more participative if people are allowed to make their own decisions free from government interference – based essentially on a religious-type belief in the inherent goodness of human beings and personal ambition. And in passing, while on the subject of religion, I note that Mr Cameron did not refer once to England’s or Britain’s Christian traditions, or to the whole issue of tensions between different faith communities in the country, particularly Muslims (no mention of the word ‘Islam’; one reference to a ‘Muslim’ member of the Shadow Cabinet): like the English issue, another intractable question that couldn’t be allowed to tarnish Cameron’s avowedly ‘optimistic’ view of the world. Is Mr Cameron a Tory Christian, and is his programme for allowing individuals to exercise moral responsibility towards themselves and society inspired by Christian faith? Nothing inherently wrong if it is; but in a statement of beliefs, it would have been interesting to know. Perhaps Cameron the propagator of spin is unwilling to openly acknowledge the religious underpinning of his belief system in the same way as his Scottish background, both of which he uncomfortably shares with both Gordon Brown and Tony Blair. And if Mr Cameron’s beliefs aren’t grounded in formal or informal religious convictions, on what does he base his hope for what he essentially describes as nothing short of a moral transformation of the country?

Of Britain, that is. Because Mr Cameron’s programme is – ostensibly – one for Britain as a whole; his beliefs embody a view of what Britain can and should be. Even though, in practical reality, he’s talking mostly of England alone. Mr Cameron says, “People want the politics of belief and that means politics they can really believe in”. But, so long as Mr Cameron cannot bring himself to utter the word England even while that is what he is talking about, I’m not sure I believe in his politics. Just as I’m not sure that he really believes in England.

25 September 2007

Anyone See England in Gordon Brown’s Vision For Britain?

In GB’s [Gordon Brown’s] first speech to the Labour Party conference as its leader and PM yesterday, there were 54 mentions of the word ‘Britain’ and 28 of ‘British’. ‘England’ and ‘English’, on the other hand, appeared just once each. The single manifestation of ‘England’ occurred in a sentence that also accounted for one of the two appearances of each of ‘Scotland’ and ‘Wales’, where the PM cited foot and mouth and terrorism as examples of how Britain’s problems in general could not be solved by breaking up the Union: “as we saw again this summer there is no Scotland-only, no Wales-only, no England-only answer to the spread of disease or to terrorist attacks that can strike at any time, anywhere in any part of our country. And sharing this same small island, we will meet our environmental, economic and security challenges not by splitting apart but when we as Great Britain stand united together”.

I note in passing that GB chose to single out Scotland and Wales here before England, probably because he did not want to acknowledge the greatest challenge to the Union, which comes from the movements campaigning for English independence. The other mentions of the words ‘Scotland’ and ‘Wales’ were contingent and do not imply political bias: GB referred to the terrorist attack on “Scotland’s biggest airport” and to a boy who won the “Diana Prince of Wales medal”. I should also add that there were no references to either ‘Scottish’ or ‘Welsh’. The one use of ‘English’ related to the teaching of the English language in schools.

OK, you might say, GB is the prime minister of Britain, so you’d expect his message to concentrate on Britain. Well, technically, he’s the PM of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and I note that the abbreviation ‘UK’ also failed to make a single appearance in his speech. ‘United Kingdom’ appeared only once in an economic context, where it is usual to refer to statistics for the whole of the UK: “in the last month [there has been] a wave of financial turbulence that started in America . . . and has impacted on all countries including the United Kingdom and tested the stability of our financial system”.

The avoidance of referring to the UK and the preference for Britain / British is a common characteristic of the Britologists: those politicians and thought leaders who are trying to forge and reinforce the idea of a common British identity and set of values. The use of ‘UK’ is a constant reminder that the British state is not a unified nation as such but a coming together of four nations under the rule of a shared monarch and parliament. ‘Britain’ and ‘British’, on the other hand, can appear to relate to a more natural, cohesive national unit: in GB’s words, this “same small island” that we share (too bad for Northern Ireland, then, and the other semi-autonomous island communities of the UK, such as the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands).

And ‘Britain’ not only represents the ideal of a truly united nation covering the full extent of the island of Britain, but it is also a Britain of ideals: a Britain of the mind and of values. So what does ‘Britain’ stand for in the mind of GB or, as he would put it, what does he stand for in the name of Britain? The clearest clue comes in a lyrical passage in which the phrase “I stand for a Britain” is repeated like an incantation at the start of nine consecutive sentences:

“I stand for a Britain where everyone should rise as far as their talents can take them and then the talents of each of us should contribute to the well being of all.

I stand for a Britain where all families who work hard can build a better life for themselves and their children.

I stand for a Britain where every young person who has it in them to study at college or university should not be prevented by money from doing so.

I stand for a Britain where public services exist for the patient, the pupil, the people who are to be served.

I stand for a Britain where it is a mark of citizenship that you should learn our language and traditions.

I stand for a Britain where we expect responsibility at every level of society.

I stand for a Britain that defends its citizens and both punishes crime and prevents it by dealing with the root causes.

I stand for a Britain where because this earth is on loan to us from future generations, we must all be stewards of the environment.

So I stand for a Britain where we all have obligations to each other and by fulfilling them, everyone has the chance to make the most of themselves”.

Not much about the aspirations voiced here that can elicit too many objections in themselves. However, I again note in passing that GB missed a perfect opportunity to include the word ‘English’ when he referred to its being a mark of British citizenship that everyone should “learn our language”. Hmm, Mr Brown, do you mean the English language? I wasn’t aware there was such a thing as the British language. Or are you just trying to avoid confrontation with defenders of the Welsh, Scottish Gaelic or even [Anglic] Scots languages by avoiding stating openly the idea that English should be imposed as the official unitary language for the whole of a united Britain?

How can we summarise this vision of Britain? It’s what you might call a mutually responsible meritocracy: GB believes in self-betterment and self-advancement; but this is enabled by supportive social structures and individual social responsibility, whereby those who do realise their abilities / talents and fulfil their aspirations have a duty to give back what they’ve received from society and contribute to giving the same opportunities to others. It’s a world view centred around the individual (including the idea that supportive social institutions such as schools and healthcare are for the individual person); but in which the more the individual achieves personal success, the more they have a responsibility to ensure that others can do the same, in a mutually sustaining, virtuous circle.

This vision of an aspirational, meritocratic Britain is explicitly outlined in another passage: “Not the old version of equality of opportunity – the rise of an exclusive meritocracy where only some can succeed and others are forever condemned to fail. But a genuinely meritocratic Britain, a Britain of all the talents. Where all are encouraged to aim high. And all by their effort can rise. A Britain of aspiration and also a Britain of mutual obligation where all play our part and recognise the duties we owe to each other.

New Labour: now the party of aspiration and community. Not just occupying but shaping and expanding the centre ground. A strong Britain; a fairer Britain. Putting people and their potential first”.

Fine-sounding words, although it’s not clear whether this supposedly new, indeed New Labour, vision of a genuine meritocracy is anything other than only a slight adjustment of the Blairite vision (which could be termed ‘equality of market opportunity’) back to a more traditional Labour focus on social assistance for the economically disadvantaged, thereby enabling them to realise their potential for the good of all.

But what is clear is that there is no vision for, or indeed of, England in GB’s roadmap for Britain. We should not be surprised at this, although we may be disappointed. GB is a Scottish prime minister for the UK; so it is in his interest to speak to and of a united Britain, because he cannot claim any ownership of or identification with specifically English interests or concerns. If you talk about a British nation and mention it enough times (54 mentions of ‘Britain’ and 28 of ‘British’ in a one-hour speech), then people may start to see your vision and believe that the Britain you stand for actually exists. But this is also a vision on which the future of the Labour Party as a party of power depends. And the future of Gordon Brown: the self-made man from Kirkcaldy who has risen to the pinnacle of British society and who now, in accordance with his value system, sees himself as responsible for the well-being of the whole of Britain. Or, in the concluding words of his speech: “I will stand up for British values. I will stand up for a strong Britain. And I will always stand up for you”.

In short, with GB, you get GB. But he doesn’t get England, and nor do you.

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